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Being With Course Participants’ Companion by Samuel Wells and Sally Hitchiner

by
20 January 2023

A fresh approach to the enquirers’ course sets Philip Welsh pondering

BEING WITH is an ambitious ten-week course from St Martin-in-the-Fields for people on the edges of the Church.

Its themes run from Meaning to Resurrection, taking in, on the way, Essence (God, that is), Jesus, Church, Bible, Mission, Cross (a session that is sensitive to former Evangelicals), Prayer, and Suffering.

The course’s title is the clue to its theology, which Samuel Wells has been developing for some time: “that being with, displayed in the incarnation, is the reason for creation, the form of salvation and the nature of eternal life”. Its bold aim is not to teach participants about the Christian faith, but to involve them in the experience of being with one another and with God, in the conviction that they already have a wealth of understanding to help them to find God in their normal life.

Two leaders are required: the host, who manages the process, and the storyteller, who gives the short talk each week. Sessions begin by asking each participant: “What has been at the heart of your week?” There follows a time of “Wonderings”: “invitations to remember, imagine and discover” in anticipation of the week’s theme. The storyteller then delivers the short talk as provided, weaving into it some reference to members’ contributions, followed by discussion.

The talks are adapted from previous publications of Wells. There are memorable insights — “discipleship means . . . spending time with those with whom Jesus spent time.” Occasionally, Wells is a bit gnomic — “God is the perfect equilibrium of three persons so with that they are in, but in in such a way that they are still with.” Sometimes, we can hear a mantra in the making, reminiscent of his mentor Stanley Hauerwas — “how the Spirit works to transform church through kingdom and thus give us glimpses of forever now”.

The storyteller is clearly expected to give the talks verbatim, apart from making a few links with participants’ prior comments. This feels a rather uneasy method of delivering someone else’s script, the more so as members already have copies to read in advance. The storyteller risks being the ventriloquist.

One surprise, in a course aimed at enquirers, is its blunt assertion of “everlasting life” as the ground of all Christian hope, and of “the day that Christ comes back” as the day that sets everything right, without acknowledgement that the sense of such claims might be far from clear to participants.

Being With originated as an in-person course, but under lockdown swiftly mutated online. The present version is offered as suitable both for on-site and online use, though its devisers clearly see advantages in operating online, something that Hitchiner has written about at greater length in Finding Abundance in Scarcity, edited by Wells (Canterbury Press, 2021; Books, 6 August 2021).

The course’s insistence that all contributions are of value and that there are no right or wrong answers finds itself in interesting tension with its prescriptiveness: everyone must speak at the opening of each session, and “No one gets to comment on what another participant has said.”

Being With deserves serious consideration as it tries to break new ground with a genuinely theological pedagogy, offered by a church whose projects are always carefully thought through. It has been extensively road-tested, but churches thinking of using it will need to consider carefully how well it will travel from Trafalgar Square, and how manageable prospective leaders will find it.


The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

 

Being With: A course exploring Christian faith and life: Leaders’ guide
Samuel Wells and Sally Hitchiner
Canterbury Press £12.99
(978-1-78622-439-2)
Church Times Bookshop £11.69

 

Being With: A course exploring Christian faith and life: Course participants’ companion
Samuel Wells and Sally Hitchiner
Canterbury Press £6.99
(978-1-78622-442-2)
Church Times Bookshop £6.29

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